Ministers may be referred for contempt

In case you missed it, there was a hearing on Friday in the Victorian Court of Appeal, in which Greg Hunt (Health Minister), Alan Tudge (Human Services Minister), and Michael Sukkar (Assistant Treasurer), were required to make submissions as to why they should not be “referred for prosecution for contempt”.

The hearing followed comments of the three ministers published in The Australian newspaper in which the ministers criticised the judiciary for being ‘soft of terrorists’. Statements included that the approach taken in Victoria in respect to terrorism was an “ideological experiment” and “[eroded] trust in the legal system”.

The statements were published at a time when the Court of Appeal had reserved its judgment in respect to the Commonwealth DPP’s appeal of the sentence imposed by the Supreme Court on Sevdet Ramadan Besim.

Following the publication, the Victorian Judicial Registrar, Ian Irving, reportedly wrote to the trio, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, the editor of The Australian newspaper, and the journalist who wrote the original article, and the trio of ministers were required to appear on Friday before the Court, or by their legal representatives.

It is understood that the Commonwealth Solicitor-General appeared on the ministers’ behalves.

The Registrar’s letter reportedly stated:

The attributed statements appear to intend to bring the court into disrepute, to assert the judges have and will apply an ideologically-based predisposition in deciding the case or cases that the judges will not apply the law”, and further “[t]he attributed statements, on their face, also appear to be calculated to influence the court in its decision or decisions and to interfere with the due administration of justice in this state

In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis, have backed the trio’s ‘right’ to criticise the Judiciary, citing a recognised freedom of elected members of Parliament to make robust observations of a particular decision or penalty.

Conversely, many in the legal community have condemned the trio’s comments as an attempt by the executive to place pressure on the judiciary, as conduct which may very well amount to a contempt.

The writer’s personal view is that the trio’s comments, whilst disappointing and ill-conceived, did not warrant the intervention of the Court; it would be extraordinary were the trio to actually be prosecuted, or even referred for prosecution, for contempt, and the move may simply be an exercise in the Court “firing a shot across the bow” of the executive, in an attempt to reassert the bounds of judicial independence.